As the head of a global fashion brand with 40 years of experience in the fashion industry, it is safe to say that Tommy Hilfiger has lived a fascinating and dynamic life. Hilfiger's latest offering is a rare look into his personal and professional journey, from a childhood in Elmira, New York to the head of one of the world's most recognisable designer labels.
Entitled American Dreamer: My Life in Fashion and Business, the tome details Hilfiger's first business selling flared pants and fringed vests, nights spent rubbing shoulders with Andy Warhol at Studio 54 in the 70s to the development of his fashion empire as it stands today.
Here, in an exclusive Buro exerpt from the book entitled American Dreamer, Hilfiger reveals the exacted process behind the development of one of his most iconic pieces.
“I wanted my line to be cool and different, but I also wanted it to be affordable, attainable. I had learned from my glam-rock infatuation, for instance, that I needed to approach Tommy Hilfiger the brand not as a niche that would appeal to a tiny audience but as a line that could appeal to large numbers of people. My key elements from the start were quality, fit, shape, fabric, detail, attitude, cool factor, and youthfulness.
I felt this strongly then, and I feel it equally strongly now: when a person picks up a shirt, he or she has to see something special in it, otherwise the shirt is a shirt is a shirt. So I made a mental check- list: Is it classic? Check. Is it fresh? Check. Is it new? Check. Is it fun? Check. Is it cool? Check. Does it fit? Check. Does it have function? Check. Is it going to appeal to a fashion customer? Check. Is it going to appeal to a regular customer, a normal everyday person? Check. Is it different from anything else in its realm? Check. Does it look more expensive than it is? Check. Does it have unique detail to differentiate it from others? Check. Is it made very well? Check. Is it on trend? Check. Is it of the moment? Check. Is it not too far ahead? Check. Is it not too far behind? Check. Every aspect of every garment had to go through that checklist.
Most of all, the collection could not look like any other. That was my main motive. Like I said, it had to be classic, but it had to have a twist.
I hired an incredibly helpful assistant, Lindy Donnelly, to sketch and do the technical drawings and a lot of the detail work, leaving me to concentrate on design. So I would look at a sample shirt and pontificate: “The color shouldn’t be that way; it should be this way. Let’s make the pocket much larger.
Let’s make the sleeve much shorter.” Lindy took notes as she sketched.
I thought out every centimeter of every item. I innovated. I created a contrast lining in the neck of a button-down. It had never been done before. It wasn’t your basic white shirt anymore—except it was! Buttoned at the collar, it was virtually indistinguishable from its more expensive brothers; only the person who wore it knew how cool he was. Unbuttoned, the coolness was there for all to see. I fashioned the piece with less interlining to make it softer and more comfortable on the neck. I developed a V-shaped label piece for the inside of the shirt. I thought of this one while I was in the air between New York and Hong Kong. That space behind the neck had never been used, and instead of accepting the classic placement of the label, I created a frame for it—a V piece that was stitched and visible from behind. My brand and logo would be recognizable without even being seen.
Initially I put a green buttonhole on every shirt; then I put a contrast buttonhole on the cuff and a contrast color in the cuff itself. I developed a contrast lining inside the sleeves, so when a guy rolled them up, he showed not only some forearm but also some imagination and style. It was all about making a shirt that was special. I wanted all of my clothes to be special.
My pants were comfortably unusual, with all sorts of different details. We offered a vibrant combination of pattern, color, fabric, and the right wash, the right twist, the right buttons. The waistband was a contrast fabric. Deep pockets, button-through flap on the back pocket. Belt loops strategically placed.
The fit was ever so important.
We knew we needed ties, so we started talking to Herb Aronson, the head of Manhattan Industries, a neckwear company, who said, “Who’s Tommy Hilfiger?” He sat in his desk chair and kept smacking a baseball into a Rawlings catcher’s mitt—smack, smack, smack. He seemed like an older guy who really wouldn’t understand what we did anyway, so I wasn’t surprised when he passed. About a year later, Tommy Hilfiger had become a sufficiently significant brand that they decided it would be a good idea to have our name on a neckwear line. We reconvened with Manhattan Industries, and they decided to do the license.
Como, Italy, was the neckwear, scarf, and cravat capital of the world—printed silks, beautiful. I had never been there, so I went with Aronson. On Lake Como, there are artist studios in family-run businesses like Ratti and Montero in a succession of beautiful villas. We visited the home of manufacturer Romano Botta, ate pasta, and picked out the ties’ foulards, or fabrics. But I didn’t want them to design my ties; I wanted to design the neckwear myself. I knew exactly what I wanted: regimental stripes, tartan plaids, solids with embroidered crests on them, all in my own color choices. I wanted them to be different.
I had a very specific idea in mind. I wanted the front to look like a regular tie, but I wanted the back to
have a tail that was in contrast. This had never been done, and at first the makers said they couldn’t do it. But I wasn’t taking no for an answer. When I have an idea and I want to do it, no is not an option. The most confrontational I’ve ever been has been with product people who say they can’t do something that I know they can. At that point I become almost fanatical, because I can see it in my mind. I saw this tie. Mr. Aronson gave me a thousand excuses, but I said, “Why don’t you just take the back of a solid tie and sew it onto the front of the tie?”
“Well, that’s very expensive.”
I kept pushing, and finally we figured it out. We created a unique signature in neckwear. Now, when a guy puts on a Tommy Hilfiger tie, it has a little contrast, just a little detail that doesn’t frighten the customer away but basically sets our neckwear apart from anything else that might be in the store.
We switched licensees from Herb Aronson’s Manhattan Industries to Superba Neckwear, a company owned by Mervyn Mendel-baum. Mervyn and I went to Lake Como together. Rather than being a no-can-do guy, Mervyn was a man who gured out how to get things done. As a result, our neckwear line exploded. It’s still selling today, twenty-six years later. People copy it, people do their version of it, but it’s ours. It’s iconic. And that, to me, is exhilarating.”
American Dreamer is available at all Tommy Hilfiger stores.